San Mateo Co. sits out Bay Area lockdown, health officer calls it 'problematic'

Five Bay Area counties are in lockdown to start this week. Health officers in the counties chose to take the step, and not wait until a state-mandated shutdown went into effect if hospital ICU capacity drops to 15% or lower.

But San Mateo County officials are breaking ranks, and remaining open.

Monday afternoon, San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow sent an email explaining his rationale for not implementing a stay-at-home order. Morrow lists 15 reasons, including that the power to control the COVID-19 outbreak rests with residents, not the government. He said the Bay Area moves as a region, independent of individual health officers’ action, and increased restrictions move more people indoors, exacerbating the problem. He noted a myopic view of data points and no method for understanding county-wide ICU capacity.

“I think it’s problematic [to have one county breaking ranks], in the sense that the counties surrounding San Mateo (county) are gonna lose the effectiveness of their shutting down, because clearly citizens from those counties can go into San Mateo can go shopping,” said Dr. Mark Schwartz, a San Jose State University biotechnologist.

True to that point, Santa Clara County resident Bianca Motta drove up to East Palo Alto for shopping. She was one of the few during a holiday season slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I didn’t actually realize San Mateo county was not participating. You would think that all the counties would be in unison,” she said.

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Not only is there no unison on this issue, but there’s open division in this county of 800,000 people. Fifth Dist. County Supervisor David Canepa disagrees with Morrow and said residents should stay at home for the next three weeks.

“All the counties that are doing the shelter in place, they’re right next to us. So what makes us think we’re special? We’re not an island,” said Canepa.

San Mateo County also isn’t immune to the economic pain of closing in-door activities. Restaurateur Elio Durzo, owner of Sapore Italian, doesn’t want to lose the $20,000 dollars invested to upgrade outdoor dining.

“We have the opportunity to still run the business. Even with six, eight tables outside, very distanced from each other, we can still survive,” said Durzo.

Added Dr. Schwartz, “There’s a risk-reward ratio that everybody’s trying to balance, and there’s no perfect right answer.”

Part of that calculus, according to the health officer, is the threat posed by limiting grocery store capacity to 20%. Also, Having everyone stay at home, but sending kids to school, and giving one person the power to determine what is “essential” for almost a million people.

Dr. Morrow also said the state’s new framework is “rife with inexplicable inconsistencies of logic.”

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